On Becoming a Playwright
This article first appeared in the May/June 2008 edition of The Word Weaver.
By Jessica Outram ©
Sweaty palms. Racing heartbeat. Expectation sits on me with the weight of an elephant. Remember to breathe. Lights up. Breathe. The terror of opening night reduces my collection of ghastly, panicky first dates to the back shelf of my anxiety.
Imagine writing a book and handing it out to a room filled with people. These are the educated, well-read people who know stuff: the knowing people. These are the people who are your friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, and former students, the people you love. These are the people who know you like to write, but have never really read anything you’ve written: the curious people.
They open to the first page and begin the story. You watch. As the characters are introduced and relationships are revealed, you watch. As the story builds to its crescendo, you watch as they react to your words without censor. This is what it feels like to be a playwright.
And, it is in this moment, as the lights flood the stage on opening night, that I wish I was a novelist. I want nothing more than to bundle up my collection of dialogue into a tidy little package and send it off with the audience to do with it what they may without me; to send me a note or call me with a carefully prepared statement on how they liked or didn’t like the work because in the theatre, the only reaction is an honest, immediate reaction. And that’s what terrifies me most: the honesty that is unique to theatre.
In many ways the debut of Once Upon a Rocking Chair marked my arrival as a writer. It marked the first time I allowed myself to wear that ominous title: writer. It marked the first time my writing ventured off the page and out into the world without apology. Above all, it marked the first time I invited the people I love to witness my work. I have never felt more vulnerable.
So here I am, sitting in the back of the theatre on opening night, willing myself to breathe. Ken, StoneCircle’s Executive Director, leans over and whispers, “look.” The audience is leaning forward in their seats. The energy of the room swells toward the stage. Someone laughs. I breathe.
More laughter. It surprises me how often they laugh. When there is a plot twist, there is a collective gasp. When it moves through the heartbreaking climax a number of people lean even closer to the stage. At the end of the show, as people exit the theatre, some of their faces are red and puffy from crying.
In two hours, I have gone from feeling tortured by the anxiety of a doomed first date to feeling the euphoria and confidence of a joyful wedding day. My words affected people and I watched it happen. I’ve become a playwright.
I love writing for the theatre. It is a powerful place. At its best it entertains, inspires, provokes, and transports. At its worst it brings apathy and boredom.
As a playwright you have to be fearless! You need to reach out into the audience and grab hold of the thinking and feeling parts of people without letting go until the show is over.
This is not a place where people can see how it ends before they begin the story unless you want them to. This is not a place to sip your tea by a roaring fire, snuggling with your favourite blanket while Michael Buble gently croons in the background. This is a place for people who can cope with the unexpected, who can embrace imperfection and unpredictability.
As a playwright, you must be able to send your work out on a burst of wind and hope the artistic vision of the production team can soar with the vision of the writing. You dispense your words to audiences like holiday gifts to children and watch as they untie the bow, peel back the wrapping, and react to the treasure before them, praying that your gift will be the best of the season.
As a playwright, you can throw away the adverbs and adjectives of prose and climb weightlessly to the apex of ideas, relationships, and questions surrounding what it means to be human.
As a playwright, your words literally come to life before you. Your characters will walk into the room and speak to you, and no one will think you are crazy.
I challenge you to become a playwright. Rework some dialogue in your fiction for the stage. Turn one of your rants into a thought-provoking monologue. Sketch the set for one of your short stories for a debut on Broadway. Go to the theatre. Dare yourself to learn from its honesty.